Thursday, February 20, 2020

"Mrs. Amworth" (1922)

This E.F. Benson story is fairly conventional vampire stuff, but it does feature Benson's sly way of telling a story and has some nice effects too. He eases into it the way he often does, starting with a description of an ancient isolated village in England and proceeding at his own pace. The narrator is an affable lifelong resident. His neighbor, educated at Cambridge, is a native who has returned. He's something of a crank, with a keen interest in the occult—the rational man of science who wants to believe, retired into his studies. Into this tiny society along comes Mrs. Amworth, "widow of an Indian civil servant." Now in her 40s, she has deep roots in the village herself, with graves of ancestors in the churchyard. "Big and energetic, her vigorous and genial personality speedily woke" the village. Everybody likes her. The narrator enjoys dropping by her place in the evening to play piquet, a card game. She also plays the piano and grows a lovely garden. Everyone adores her except the academic from Cambridge, though he is at least "vastly interested" in her. I like the way Benson sprinkles his clues cunningly and relentlessly but I admit I'm confused again by vampire rules. In a way, Mrs. Amworth is sunshine itself—she certainly has no problems with daylight. On the other hand, more conventionally, she is visibly refreshed and more youthful after drinking up, and she can also sink into the earth back into a grave. These aren't necessarily the good effects here but they're not bad. To set the mood there's a lot of lore to sort out but it's interesting mostly. It seems there had been vampire activity reported back at the Amworths' post in India, as, indeed, there had been in the distant past of the English village. Hmm, makes a person think. Benson is actually quite artful at this. He knows when he is showing you his cards, though he always seems to be holding back another. And he delivers some nice surprises. But I'm still working on the basics around here, as I understand that vampires and zombies are both undead creatures but on different paths? (Let's leave witches out of it for now. I haven't seen enough of those stories yet.) Perhaps film director F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu is the last point where the species resemblance between vampires and zombies remains. Interestingly, Nosferatu (released the same year "Mrs. Amworth" was published) was based on Bram Stoker's Dracula. The Universal Pictures adaptation of 1931 with Bela Lugosi has presently, of course, become the more famous enduring vision of the undead blood-sucker—suave, debonair, European, pointing down the road to Count Chocula. With that in mind, perhaps what we have is a spectrum of perception, with "undead" at one end and at the other "immortal," which seems to better fit the tenor of these charming and dashing but ultimately deadly creatures (leaving fairies out of it too for now). The ability to charm may be Mrs. Amworth's strongest trait, but she has some other interesting tricks up her sleeve as well.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

No comments:

Post a Comment